Buddy Bags growing to meet needs

Written on 05/23/2024
Patrick Munsey

United Way program feeds 300 children a week throughout school year

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Volunteers from General Motors Components Holding (GMCH) and United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 292 formed an assembly line, filling bright red bags with ramen, pork and beans, shelf-stable milk, pudding, and other foods. Their hour of work meant 285 children in Howard County had food to eat over a weekend.

From August to May, the scene repeats. The people filling the “Buddy Bags” may rotate. Different businesses and organizations may be involved, but the need remains the same. That is why United Way Serving Howard and Tipton Counties operates the Buddy Bags program, and the community is stepping up to help.

According to United Way Executive Director Dana Neer, the program has grown in terms of volunteers. A year ago, just a few organizations kept the program afloat. Chariot Auto Group, Solidarity Community Federal Credit Union, and Scouting America joined United Way to form the pillars upon which the charitable effort rests. Thankfully, those numbers have grown.

“We’re continuing to put it together, keeping the mission to take care of kids foremost,” said Neer. “We want to make sure their physical needs are met over the weekend. Everybody has a heart for kids, right? So, we are pulling people together to put together Buddy Bags every week.”

Neer said that Buddy Bags now has eight to 12 businesses and organizations working together to ensure food reaches as many children in need as possible. And he is confident those volunteers will return in August when classes resume.

Chariot Auto Group President Rex Gingerich received special thanks from Neer for the donation of space in Kokomo for the Buddy Bags crews to assemble the bags each week. The bags – unmistakably crimson – are emblazoned with the logo of Solidarity Community FCU, as they donate the bags for each delivery.

And the Scouts handle the delivery. Sherry Collins, Peshewa Senior District Executive, Scouting America Sagamore Council, was on-hand on May 1 to coordinate the assembly operation. She explained to the volunteers how the process flowed, but she also expressed how needed the volunteers’ efforts are to the Buddy Bags program. The added help is making a huge difference.

“I’m looking forward to putting together the schedule for the ‘24-‘25 season,” said Collins. “All of the organizations can go on a 10-week rotation. It's more of a collaborative community impact effort, not just a couple organizations, so I can't thank you all enough.

“Folks, more than 285 kiddos in our community would go hungry over the weekend if we didn't do this weekly. They will have food and nourishment to fuel their bodies and their minds to be ready to go back to school on Monday.”

Collins said the entire process takes about six hours a week, from food collection to packing to delivery.

Neer wants to see more involvement to continue building Buddy Bags to tackle growing food insecurity in Howard and Tipton counties.

“Right now, we're providing food for about 300 children, and that's we're budgeting for -- $90,000 a year,” said Neer. “Every year that number is going to either stay the same or grow. We also can grow in 2025 If the need is there.

“We have a lot of funding from organizations, but we can’t assume we will be fully funded. We don’t know what the need will be next fall. So, if you or your organization have a heart for this investment, reach out to us.”

More than feeding children, the Buddy Bags program helps build the future of the community. The program has operated for several years, and now a few of the past recipients of Buddy Bags have returned the generosity by volunteering with the program as they reached adulthood.

“We want to hear those success stories,” said Neer. “We want to see a family’s situation get better. We want to share that story. To see that passion come out, it's really wonderful.”

Buddy Bags is funded through the United Way’s annual fundraising campaign. This year, the organization collected more than $1.2 million in donations and pledges. In late August, the organization will return to its traditional fall timeframe for its next campaign, but individuals and organizations can donate anytime. And they can designate their gifts, targeting a program like Buddy Bags for their generosity.

“We do take designated donations,” said Neer. “We have a number of corporations that want to give specifically to Buddy Bags and provide the volunteers. It's just great to see people are invested in helping our little ones be successful. Every society that takes care of their little ones is a strong society.”

For more information about the Buddy Bags program or United Way Serving Howard and Tipton Counties, visit www.howardandtiptonunitedway.org or the organization’s Facebook page. To arrange a donation of time or resources, call 765-457-4357.